Lady Columbia Trope

The idea of Lady Columbia first originated in a poem from 1697 by Samuel Sewall who proposed “Columbina” to be the name for the American colonies in honor of Christopher Columbus. It wasn’t until 1775 during the American Revolution war that it gained popularity through a poem written by a black slave, Phillis Wheatley where she referred to America as ‘Columbia’. John Ghast was an artist who created the famous oil painting, American Progress, in 1872 that portrays the American idea of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion. In his painting, Lady Columbia is dressed in a loose white garment, carrying a book, and stringing along telegraph lines. She is leading American colonizers westward and noticeably bringing light to the dark land of wild animals and Native Americans. This painting which is widely known will help explain the tropes to follow. In all three examples after this painting, Lady Columbia is a symbolic figure who protects and guides Americans. Each example shows different ways she portrays America during different times in history, depicting her as a positive symbol of America and their ideals.

Trope 1:

In 1881, Frank Leslie created a wood engraved illustration for a newspaper caricature called, Columbia Welcomes the Victims of German Persecution to “the Asylum of the Oppressed”. In Leslie’s illustration, it shows Lady Columbia dressed in white welcoming Jewish immigrant families who are wearing run down and darker clothing carrying loads of luggage. Her skin and figure is much cleaner and more elegant compared to the tired looking travellers. In the distance there is a body of water and a city landscape.

Without knowing the historical background of when this piece was created, the viewer would simply see the trope, Lady Columbia, as a pure and clean woman welcoming tired working class immigrants to her land. This newspaper drawing was created during a period of mass emigration of Jewish people. Due to persecution, many Jewish people moved to the Americas for a new start as it was an asylum for all. This imagery is rather interesting as it resembles the more current American symbol of Lady Liberty as she too welcomes immigrants. The difference in clothing and light value helps show that the Jewish people are arriving in a bright and great country. Lady Columbia is depicted as a savior, graciously letting those who are oppressed come to seek safety.

Trope 2:

This chromolithograph, Columbia’s Easter Bonnet, created by Samuel D. Ehrhart after a sketch by Louis Dalrymple was published in Puck Magazine in 1901 which shows Lady Columbia as the main focus. Lady Columbia is dressed with stars and stripes and is wearing an Easter bonnet in the shape of a battleship labeled ‘World Power’. The cannons protruding from it are labeled ‘Army’ and ‘Navy’ with the word ‘expansion’ coming from smok. Pinning the bonnet in place with a sword she is surrounded by lavish products as she admires her beauty.

While historical knowledge about America is not necessary to determine that this woman figure named Columbia represented America due to her patriotic clothing and that she not only was beautiful and confident but held power through the language and size of the battleship bonnet. Knowing the context and the historical events strengthens the trope as the viewer has background information that further intensifies Lady Columbia’s symbolic image. By 1900 America had successfully completed western expansion, colonizing from the east to the west coast. This is depicted in the magazine art through the battleship and its dark yet whimsical smoke saying ‘expansion’. The smoke represents the darkness due to the battles against the Native Americans but the prominence and bright colors used in the ship show they were victorious and still moving forward. America was confident in holding a position as a world power as they had money with oil and new technology such as telephones and Henry Ford’s gasoline engine car. This was a bright age for America and it is clearly represented through Colombia’s posture and use of expensive products. While Lady Columbia is often dressed in white to show purity and womanhood, her clothes have the American colors of red, white, and blue which hold more strength and assertion compared to the loose garments seen on Leslie and Ghast’s Columbia. The main point this image shows is the power America holds and Ehrhart’s use of type helps the reader understand that America’s army and Navy is strong if they didn’t already know. Ultimately, this magazine print uses the trope of Lady Columbia who is a symbol of the United States to show the status, power, and confidence America has.

The poster, Can You Drive a Car? Will You Drive One in France? Immediate Service at the Front, designed by Charles Dana Gibson in 1917 was to recruit Americans to join the American Field Service during World War I to drive ambulances in France. This print was made from a lithograph adding the rough and sketchy texture and Gibson’s drew his figures realistically. The poster contains Lady Columbia dressed in a garment with stars and stripes to represent the American flag. She is pushing back a creepy skeleton and protecting the injured soldier who is sitting in the vehicle. Lady Columbia’s expression is stern and fearless as she strangles the skeleton with ease.

This poster portrays Lady Columbine as a strong, defensive, and protective figure who at whatever cost will protect her wounded soldier. The skeleton symbolizes death so by keeping it away from the soldier she is saving his life. By showing such a brave and strong figure protecting fellow Americans, it inflicts this sense of duty and admiration in American citizens making them want to take part in such valiant actions. The type being red represents urgency and a call for action which aids in the recruitment purpose.


In each example, Lady Columbia who symbolizes the United States is being presented with confidence, beauty, strength, and generosity. The depiction of her changes based on the ideals they have at a certain time in American history or what America wants to present themselves as. During the surge of westward expansion and the manifest destiny mentality, Ghast’s Lady Columbia shows guidance, intelligence, and enlightenment as she brings light to the west while stringing along the technology of telegraphs. In Leslie’s newspaper, she is welcoming because of the increase in immigrants coming to America. In Ehrhart’s magazine design, Lady Columbia protrudes confidence, power, and class, the same feelings Americans had during the early 1900s. Finally, during a war effort when Americans were needed, she showed bravery and protection to encourage American citizens that they can do the same. While they all differ slightly, Lady Columbia is always portrayed as a pure but strong force that leads and represents America in a positive way.


John Gast, American Progress, 1872

American Woman? Amérique, Columbia, and Lady Liberty

Discussion — One Response

  • Julia Young 02/23/2021 on 10:29 PM

    Loved all the information that was packed into this post, gave a strong background to the different depictions of Lady Colombia. Do you think that the Lady Colombia that we see in Colombia’s picture company is the same, if so, do you think this could represent the modern interpretation of America as the logo has progressed through the decades? Or do you think it has become more of a symbol of the state of production film?

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